Paranormal Activity: A Personal Story

Who hasn’t experienced strange things in life, events that defy explanation? Instead of digressing into a long argument as to why such strange events are just coincidences (see a recent Aeon essay on the topic), and that we are the ones who attach meaning to them because we are meaning-seeking creatures, I will tell you a bizarre story, a hair-raising event that remains—at least to me—mystifyingly unexplainable.

When I was seventeen, growing up in Rio, my parents loved hosting dinner parties. One time, we had a very important guest for dinner, Senhor João Rosas, Portugal’s former minister of justice (similar to the U.S. attorney general), together with some friends from Lisbon.

All the guests were chatting away in the living room. Ever the gracious host, my father approached Senhor Rosas and offered him a whisky.

The minister took a sip and said, “Ó, Izaac, I’m very sorry, but this is not whisky.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“It’s tea. Nice tea, mind you, but just tea.”

“Impossible! Let me try.”

My father took a sip and said, “My God! It is tea! I am terribly sorry!”

My father rushed to the beverage closet and tried the whisky from the bottle he had served Senhor João. Tea. He eyed the other opened whisky bottles on the shelf. Tea in all of them. Horrified, he moved to the cognac. Also tea. Every single bottle of amber-colored spirit was filled with tea. My father almost spontaneously combusted.

He rushed to the kitchen, where Maria, our cook, was muttering something over the stove, no doubt a prayer to Yemanjá or some other deity. She was a small black lady in her late fifties, with pitch-dark beady eyes. A white turban perpetually covered her head. We all knew what that meant: Maria was a high priestess of Macumba, a syncretic religious practice widespread in Brazil, mixing African black magic and fetishism with elements of Catholicism.

On Mondays, the day of the souls, countless candles illuminate crossroads around the country, many with offerings of dead black chicken, cheap cigars, and half-empty bottles of cachaça, together with pictures of loved or hated ones. Macumba rituals involve a lot of drinking and chanting, inducing the “channelers” into a trancelike state so they can “receive” the spirits of the dead. Once they are possessed, their back arches, their eyes roll, and their motions become jerky as they give advice in matters of the heart in otherworldly guttural voices. Channelers are those rare souls with an open door to the beyond, the conduits to the world of the dead. Maria was one of them.

“Maria!” my father yelled. “Did you drink everything in the closet?”

“Almost everything, yes, sir,” answered Maria, unabashed. My father was livid.

“Tomorrow morning, I want you to pack your things and get out!”

Maria turned toward my father. Her eyes were shooting angry sparks of light. My father took a step back.

I was standing right behind him and saw his hand go slowly into his front left pocket, where he always kept a head of garlic. In my father’s world, evil could strike at any time. It was a perpetual war.

“I will go, Doctor, but something will happen to this house. Just you wait!”

Next morning, Maria called me into the kitchen. She had packed her bags and needed help getting them downstairs. Her eyes were still sparking. She grabbed me by the shoulders and stared right into my soul.

“You, boy, you have corpo fechado. Nothing will do you harm.”

Petrified, I thanked her awkwardly while twisting myself from her grip. Corpo fechado, literally “closed body,” meant a kind of spiritual shield that protected a person from evil.

Shattered reality

About a month after the incident, I was in my room, trying to concentrate on my math problems but couldn’t. I felt an uncontrollable urge to walk down the corridor, toward the dining room. Our rococo-style dining table was flanked on both ends by furniture containing fine crystal. Behind my father’s seat at the head of the table was a closet with glass doors and three glass shelves, where my parents stored the “too good to use” wineglasses made of Bohemian crystal, beautifully etched with floral patterns. At the opposite end of the table was a brass beverage trolley, with a top glass shelf covered with crystal bottles filled with port, sherry, and liqueurs of all colors, each labeled with a small silver necklace.

I was standing by the dining table in a strange sort of daze when something, maybe a subtle noise, made me turn toward the closet. At that very moment, the top shelf broke in half, and all the heavy glasses came crashing down onto the second shelf, which in turn collapsed onto the bottom shelf in a horrifying waterfall of shattering crystal. Dozens of priceless antique glasses were instantly destroyed. I hardly had time to blink, when another cracking noise made me turn toward the trolley at the other end of the table. In a flash, the top shelf collapsed, taking all the crystal bottles to the floor with it. The noise was deafening. Shards of glass flew everywhere. I was paralyzed. The new cook came running from the kitchen and crossed herself. She packed her things and vanished that same night, never to be seen again.

Shaking uncontrollably, I phoned my father at his office.

“It’s the curse, dad. She did it! Everything crashed, right in front of me. The closet and the trolley, practically at the same time!”

“Don’t touch anything! I’m coming home!”

I was stunned. How could something like this happen? Coincidence? Sure, if it had been only the closet or the trolley. There was tension on the shelves, they were overloaded, years of exposure to tropical humidity had rotted the wood pins supporting them . . . but both closet and trolley practically at the same time? And in a region of the world where there are no earthquakes or even slight tremors? Could it possibly have been some sort of resonance effect? Highly unlikely, as the crash was so quick. A supersonic blast wave from a jet flying nearby? Nah. Let’s accept what happened for what it was: a very bizarre occurrence of spooky synchronicity. Any rational explanation simply doesn’t add up.

The disaster couldn’t have been more attuned to the curse. There’s no question that I witnessed a very unnatural occurrence. Had Maria used me as her conduit? Was that grabbing of my arms, that fiery staring into my eyes some kind of hypnotic technique? Did I break everything under some sort of sleepwalking trance and couldn’t remember a thing? Not very probable. I’m not prone to hypnosis or to sleepwalking. And as far as I know, I don’t suffer from multiple personality disorder and forget what my other self had been up to.

The fact is that both the closet and the trolley collapsed in near-perfect synchrony. The curse had been fulfilled.

Beyond normal

Any explanation that I can come up with challenges what I consider to be “normal.” If I broke everything and can’t remember it because I was in some kind of hypnotic trance, then it means that there are dimensions to my existence beyond my control. That’s pretty scary. If I didn’t do it and it happened through some supernatural magic, then my whole worldview is in bad need of revision. If it happened through some perfectly natural cause, and I—or anyone else I told this story to—can’t figure out what it was, it means that there is much more to reality than we know.

This last option is by far the best. It sustains my hope in our ability to comprehend the world at least in part, even when faced with what is apparently incomprehensible. After all, isn’t modern science a tool to comprehend what is so different, so distant from our immediate reality?

Doesn’t science probe into the mysterious, inching its way into understanding, explaining the unknown with the knowable? Indeed, but there will always be room for the mysterious out there. Perhaps it’s better this way. Not everything must be explained, not every question must have an answer. Life would be quite boring otherwise.

A bit of the unexplained is good, keeping us a little unsettled.


This essay is adapted from Gleiser’s book, The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected.

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Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.